Perspectives on 20th Century America: Readings and Commentary

By Otis L. Graham Jr. | Go to book overview

has no sympathy for the anxious WASPs, one may detect here a shift in his perspective from the 1964 article. In the early 1960s, most Americans were relatively sanguine about the possibilities of eliminating racial and ethnic intolerance through education and moral instruction. Those who wrote on nativism had a tendency to see it as an irrational response to problems that were in the main imaginary or unworthy of a proud people. Today, when we are more aware of the deep, stubborn roots of ethnic and racial intolerance, we are not surprised to find Coben discussing the abrasive effects of massive population shifts along with the psychological problems of adjusting to alien folkways. While Coben does not explore the matter with exhaustive thoroughness, the prominent place he gives to demographic shifts hints at the very real problems of housing, schools, living space, and job competition which grow up between settled groups and newcomers. Nativist anxieties thus take on a more palpable basis than mere xenophobia. There are many sources of group conflict, and one senses a tendency among interested scholars to respect the material as well as the psychological roots of nativism.

Studies such as this one make it clear that the 1920s were filled with many tensions and conflicts, no less real because they were not primarily economic. The decade should be remembered for these shadows as well as for the lighter moments our nostalgia revives and cherishes. In addition to restoring much of the truth about a decade unfortunately stereotyped as a "Jazz Age," the study of the repressive activities of the white Protestant majority will assist us to understand why the decade ended as it did, in depression. A radically different outcome for the 1920s was perhaps not possible, whatever the forces of social reform had done. But it is clear that while men were busy reforming the unassimilated masses living in the heart of our great cities, they had little time to correct the economic distortions which would, in time, bring a common poverty that put religious and racial differences in a better perspective.

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Americans and western Europeans carried out an insidious type of conquest throughout the world; tearing apart established religious, economic, and political relationships, attempting to replace them with Western cultural forms. Minority ethnic groups in the United States were subjected to similar cultural assaults, usually more subtle, but in many respects more effective than attacks on cultures in foreign lands. Only the United States, among the Western powers, contained among its population large elements of many races generally believed in the West to be inferior. Nowhere else were nativist organizations and official policies directed against internal minorities which together formed such a substantial portion of the population. Only the United States, therefore, suffered massive counterattacks analogous to the revolts of colonial races elsewhere. There was an element of reality, then, in the terror experienced by millions of Americans when revolution swept eastern and central Europe during 1919 to 1920, and propagandists among hitherto subservient races threatened similar rebellion in the United States.

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